|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
In the various debates over the state of journalism, the area about which the least is known is probably local news radio.
Critics argue that the field has been decimated, decrying that since the deregulation of the 1980s and the consolidation of the 1990s station after station has abandoned producing local news, and arguing that cities around the country have suffered as a result.
Defenders say there are more choices and more news, talk and information than ever.
The discussion on both sides, however, is usually anecdotal. The medium tends not to receive the level of academic attention or critical study focused on network TV, print or the Internet.
As part of the Day in the Life of the News, we wanted to find out what local radio was actually offering citizens.1 To do so, we studied what was on local news radio on May 11, 2005, in three cities in three different regions: — Houston, a major metropolitan area, Milwaukee, a middle-sized city, and Bend, Ore., a smaller city.
What we found, by and large, is that radio news today is more local than the critics might think, but also quite thin. It rarely involves sending reporters out to explore the community and tell stories about local voices and personalities — the hallmarks of traditional local news coverage. Over all, the stories we found on local radio this day had the shallowest sourcing and explored the fewest angles of any media studied.
Instead, what listeners got was headlines read from wires or provided by national networks. The stories were brief — almost always less than a minute and often less than 30 seconds.
Radio News: Story Types
What is probably the most prevalent local component on radio today is traffic and weather, broadcast on every station studied.
Whatever depth of coverage we found came largely from talk-show hosts offering their opinions on issues or taking calls from listeners.
In Bend, the one local radio station listed as offering local news and talk was KBND, where the only story segment longer than a minute in the hours studied was Paul Harvey’s syndicated “Rest of the Story” about the 1931 Indy 500.2
During morning drive time on News/Talk WTMJ in Milwaukee, the news block was made up of 14 headlines at the top of the hour, but the headlines were brief, without a single source for any information cited.
Of all the hours monitored on local radio this day, only 14% involved correspondents reporting the story and many of those came from the local NPR affiliate or feeds from network owners.
How much radio news did we find?3 In the biggest city, Houston, with a population of roughly 2 million4, there were two stations identifying themselves as news/talk, two all-talk stations and one public radio station. The fourth largest city in the country had no station listing itself as “all news” dedicated to coverage of the community.
Listeners actually had more radio news options in the Milwaukee market, population 600,000, with eight stations listed: Three news/talk, two talk, and three public radio.5
In Bend, a city of 52,000, radio listeners had little choice if they wanted news. One local news station, KBND, a “combined communication station” and CBS affiliate, offered CBS headlines and then mostly local news headlines. Listeners could also tune into an all-talk station broadcast from Redmond, Wash.
What We Studied
To get a closer sense of what was offered in each city we monitored one all-news station, one news/talk station, and a public radio station if it had local news programming hours. If no all-news station existed, we monitored a second news-talk station.
For each, we captured local programming at three different times of the day — an early-morning hour, a mid-day hour and an evening hour — if local news was offered.6
Local news radio listeners are not hearing the same stories they would get from other media. And, in spite of the high level of consolidation that has taken place in radio, they are not hearing just nationally syndicated material with little local connection.
More than half the airtime (57%) on May 11 took a local perspective and another 16% were regional in focus. Eighteen percent delved into areas that did not fit clearly into any geographic boundary, such as divorce, health matters or the daily news quiz. The other quarter took a national or international angle.
Geographic Focus of Local Radio News
The stories that dominated the national media were a minor factor here. The four national stories that got the most coverage across the media generally this day were covered, but usually just briefly in the headlines at the top of the hour. A mere 5% of the stations’ newshole spoke to these stories — only suburban daily papers covered them less (4%). Listeners could easily miss them if they weren’t listening closely.
What topics were covered? By and large, listeners learned about three main subject areas: local government issues such as tax bills and the school budget; crime (murders, local voter fraud, and missing persons as well as the murder story in Zion, Ill., a national news items this day); and domestic issues such as education and marriage, whether tied to local events or to broader, non-geographical concerns. Each of those areas accounted for close to a quarter of the total air time. All other topics were fit into the other quarter of air time. That was a different mix from local television that day which was close to twice as dedicated to crime but much less so to government news. And it was a narrower focus than we found in local print media.
Topics on Local Radio
Of the top 14 stories in WTMJ’s morning news hour, for instance, 10 were local. Eight of those were about local crimes.
WTMJ, Milwaukee Morning News: 14 Stories
The Lost Art of Local Radio Story-Telling
But it was local radio’s approach to reporting on those topics that stood out most of all. Rarely could the news content offered be described as thorough, complete or even well rounded. Little of it involved reporters going out to the scene and interviewing people or serving as the public’s eyes and ears. Indeed, the local radio news we found on May 11 was not about reporting in a traditional sense at all.
Sourcing of information, for instance, was often absent. A full third of the coverage of the major news items across the stations studied did not contain any sourcing. Another 37% contained only one source other than the host.
Sourcing in Local Media
That compared poorly to the other sources of local news we monitored on May 11, from local TV, to weekly papers, to local or suburban daily papers. All of those rivals were significantly higher in the amount of sourcing available to audiences. Suburban dailies included four or more sources in 18% of their stories, and local TV included four or more in 13%. Local radio listeners must put a good deal of trust in the local on-air voices.
When it came to how much context stories provided, local radio scored the lowest of any English-language media studied. On our index of 10 elements that major stories might contain that would explain how a story mattered, 88% contained one or none — and that includes the long, far-ranging talk-radio discussions.7 Again, that was the lowest score of any media studied.
Format Is King
Instead, what we found in local radio news was a medium heavily “formatted,” where everything was fit into a predictable and highly promotable pattern that was easy for listeners to remember. Yet that format tended to shallow-out the reporting on radio, and emphasize what cost less for stations to produce.
Across all the stations we studied in all three cities, the format on local radio was dominated by four elements: headlines, traffic, weather, and talk.
Only one station studied, KBND in Oregon, had a program we monitored that did not feature talk. Both its 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. hours cycled through national headlines from the CBS news desk, local headlines, sports, weather and traffic and business news — and then repeated.
The amount of talk versus news varied with the time of day. On Houston ’s KTRH, the 6 a.m. drive time “Lana Hughes and J.P. Pritchard Show” was almost all headlines, traffic and weather. The one longer news segment was a one-minute, 38-second read on a Texas tax bill, with one sound “actualities” from a senator but no reporter at a news scene. The hosts were reading wires. No other story item during the hour ran even a minute long.
In the afternoon on KTRH, however, the “Deborah Duncan Show” was all about talk. After a brief headline summary, Duncan spent most of her time taking listener call-ins. The topic was divorce — everything from being surprised by emotions to what no-fault divorce means in court to protecting children from negative effects.
It was in the headline summaries at the top of the hour that the local radio we monitored offered the bulk of what people might traditionally consider the news. All the stations offered headline summaries, and all the summaries were brief. Segments were usually under a minute and often less than 30 seconds, too brief to include much in the way of context or connection to listeners.
When it came to the level of reporting and sourcing, especially for national news, there was some variation. The national stories provided by network feeds (including public radio feeds) offered listeners slightly longer reports. They also tended to have either correspondents reporting or soundbites from at least one source, but they did not often feature both.
KBND’s 5 p.m. hour, for example, kicked off with national news from CBS, covering nine stories in four minutes. Three of the nine were reports from network correspondents, but only one included any soundbites or sound actualities from newsmakers themselves. Two of the stories read by the network anchor also included at least one soundbite from a newsmaker.
There does appear to be a trade-off. Stations that handled news summaries locally rather than getting them from a national network news operation tended to be more local in focus. But they also tended to be even more cursory.
In Houston, for instance, KSEV’s morning show covered both the national and local headlines in its minute-and-a-half news roundup, but none of the reports featured a correspondent or any soundbites at all. The news summary amounted to a local anchor reading wires.
KSEV Morning News: Top Headlines
The station that stood out for offering listeners the richest local news reporting at the top of the hour was the public radio station in Kenosha, Wis., WGTD. Following NPR headlines at the top of the 8:00 a.m. hour, the station covered six local stories, each over a minute long and with multiple sources. And three of them were reported by a correspondent on the scene. A report on the discovery of uncounted ballots, for instance, featured a local correspondent and quoted reaction from both a Republican and a Democratic state representative. The entire piece was under a minute and half. Among the stories monitored on May 11, that one was unusual.
Another effect of the reliance on headline summaries was that most stories made almost no attempt to offer listeners much context, explore different elements or try to make any sense of how stories might affect them. Looking at stories that were less than 45 seconds (a subset that includes most headline coverage but removes the longer talk segments), more than 80% offered none of the contextual elements for which we measured.
Weather and Traffic
The next key ingredients in the radio format were weather and traffic. They were usually 20-to-30-second segments that were repeated, with updating as needed, throughout the hour, sometimes from a designated traffic and weather personality and other times from the program host.
On KTRH’s morning show in Houston, for instance, the rundown following roughly 10 minutes of news headlines with promotions and ad time was an 11-minute, 29-second period that featured traffic, then weather, a station promo, and three minutes of ads. After the break, another promo, then sports headlines, then more ads, then back to traffic and weather. The totals: 86 seconds of traffic, 3 minutes and 37 seconds of weather, 69 seconds of promotions, and nearly five minutes of advertising. The rundown, following the news headlines from minutes 1-11 went as follows:
KTRH 6 A.M. Hour
Programming Min: Sec
All of the morning and evening news programs monitored offered between five and eight traffic and weather segments each hour — about every eight minutes on average. The lone exception in our sample was the NPR affiliate, WGTD, in Kenosha , which offered two. (The mid-day hours were less focused on traffic and weather, with just two or three segments each.) It is worth noting, though, that even this dominance was much less than what was found on local TV news that day. All in all, traffic and weather accounted for more than double the news time on local TV than on local radio (22% versus 9%).
By and large, what depth we did find in local radio this day came through “talk.” Those segments were generally much longer but ranged from 25 seconds of commentary following each news headline to nearly 30 minutes of call-ins or guest interviews on a single topic.
The hosts normally included some facts of the story they wanted to discuss, but usually the “reporting” was secondary to the focus on opinion. Sourcing, to the extent it existed at all, was almost always second-hand, and in some cases the reporting came from the listeners who were invited to call in. On occasion the talk format had the quality of blogging, where citizens offered information and the host was a moderator rather than the center of the show. Yet it was impossible to discern whether the information was reliable.
On KSEV in Houston, for instance, the morning show host Chris Begala took three listener calls about a tax bill at the end of the hour that seemed to be offering information, or at least speculation.
The first caller said he had not yet received his appraisal and wondered if it was intentional, on the chance it might change because of the new tax bill.
Begala responded with speculation of his own: “Now that is entirely possible. Of course it is just conjecture on our part. We have no really hard evidence to argue. I can’t tell you why you haven’t gotten yours, but . . . I think that has about a zero percent chance of passing.”
The next caller said she had inside knowledge that a former mayor had wanted to hold off on the assessments so residents did not get upset and vote against him. It wasn’t clear how she had that inside information, but it was good enough for Begala: “Interesting. Thanks Cathy. That is good solid information.”
The third caller added yet another nugget: “I called in to the office and they hadn’t sent it out but the phone person said I have 30 days from when I get it.”
Begala: “. . . Just keep good track of exactly when you do get it. . . . If you were told by that office that you have 30 days, then I’m sure you do . . . but keep the stamped letter as proof. . . We’ve got the most informed, knowledgeable listeners out there.”
On some of the talk programs it was occasionally possible to figure out where a host had gotten his or her information, but listeners needed to be following closely. In the talk on WTMJ about a possible change to Marquette University ’s team name, one of the hosts recapped the situation and did mention his immediate source, in passing:
Jagler: The MU board of trustees has scheduled an emergency meeting today, that much we know. The agenda, according to Rana Altenburg, Marquette’s vice president for public affairs, is to sit down and discuss all of the communication that they’ve received since the vote one week ago. In other words, they’re going to discuss the outcry and anger they’ve received . . . she doesn’t know, she’s telling the Journal Sentinel, if they’re going to actually vote to reconsider.”
WHBL in Sheboygan, Wis., actually provided some of the best sourcing we found in any news/talk segment monitored, though it was still clearly used to make a point. The sourcing came from the replay of soundbites, or “news actualities.” In questioning a statement by the mayor that appeared in the Sheboygan Press that morning, the afternoon host replayed a clip from a town meeting earlier that week. The subject was the building of a new police station. The host first read the mayor’s comment in the paper: “He said, ‘The complaints the police have shared with us have never been about location.’ I thought that was the only thing the police were talking about as [sic] their concern.”
The host then went back and played audio from a law-enforcement meeting the previous evening at which an officer, speaking on behalf of the department, had said, “The most significant issue for us is the central location.” The host played the soundbite again and again and again and again to make his point. But listeners were hearing the words of the officer himself. The program, highly local, also had the feel of a public forum to a greater extent than other programs we monitored. Even a local alderman called in to comment. Listen to WHBL Afternoon Host Audio Clip (Get Quicktime® Plug-in)
The Tone of the Talk
Occasionally the tone of the talk-radio programs we heard had an edge that also brought to mind blogging. The words were uncompromising, blunt, often suspicious. This wasn’t just opinion. This was a kind of grievance.
KSEV’s morning show in Houston was again illustrative. Chris Begala was sitting in for the regular host, Edd Hendee, and his main topic was a state tax bill, supported by Lt. Gov. David Duhurst, that would change the school tax. The State Senate had approved the bill in the wee hours of the morning. Begala was crystal clear in his views of the lieutenant governor and the idea of raising taxes:
“Duhurst wants to take away our school exemption. Duhurst would raise $482 million in new or higher taxes and property tax relief in 2007. Don’t believe it. It’s bull crap. A bunch of bull.”
Begala then suggested that the coverage in the Houston Chronicle that morning, which suggested that the bill was “revenue neutral” was also nonsense.
“That’s wrong. Of course it is not (revenue neutral)… David Duhurst has gone mad, and any Republican who supports it has gone mad too. . . .”
In Milwaukee , the tone on WTMJ’s morning news was not so harsh. The subject was the possible renaming of Marquette University ’s sports teams. But the message was similar. Something was wrong. The university had made a “mess” of things. But rather than angry, the tone was more ironic, making fun rather than fuming.
Ken Herrera: I don’t think anyone on the board expected the feedback to be so overwhelming [sic] negative.
John Jagler: I think you’re absolutely right about that. And what are they going to do? I don’t know. You mentioned going back to the Golden Eagles. I just don’t think they’re going to do that.
In the end, Jagler would conclude: And the one thing for folks . . . for alum holding out hope, nothing’s been finalized. I mean they’re not the Gold yet. They haven’t taken to the field or the court or anything … They still have time to fix the mess they created a week ago. I just don’t think they will, but you never know.
Beyond the general characteristics of the different program types, there were also differences in the characteristics of what a listener could get in a city generally.
In Houston, the stations and hours studied all offered a mix in format and topics. KTRH (news/talk), the ABC and Clear Channel station, was all news in the morning hour, call-ins in the afternoon and all national programming in the evening. Even though it was an ABC affiliate, it did not turn to the parent network for national news headlines, but stayed with the local host. The only subject discussed at length in the two hours of local programming was divorce.
KSEV, a news/talk station since converted to just talk, offered local news, talk and call-ins in both the morning and evening hours but aired national talk shows at mid-day. The morning program offered a bit of contextual talk on the Zion murders but spent the bulk of discussion time and all call-in time on the state tax bill. Afternoon listeners heard more talk about a different national news item, the filibuster rule being debated in the U.S. Senate, but again all call-in time was on the state tax bill.
In Milwaukee, the three stations came out of three different suburbs, with a mix of formats, and perhaps as a result focused on more varied topics. The only story carried across two different stations, indeed, was the debate about the new nickname of the Marquette sports team.
The ABC affiliate WHBL out of Sheboygan (news/talk) was all headline news in the morning, heavily listener call-ins in the afternoon and all national programming in the evening. On the morning program, “Morning News with Kelly Meyer & Mike Kinzel,” the longest segment ( 3:48 ) and the only one to veer from headline traffic and weather, was a listener news quiz and giveaway. The next longest segment ( 3:39 ) addressed the Marquette team nickname. The afternoon program, “Middays with Nick Red,” spent roughly 17 minutes on talk and listener call-ins about the site for a new police station. Both hours turned, at the top of the hour, to the ABC news desk for national news headlines, occasionally with ABC correspondents or outside sources.
WTMJ (News/Talk) a CBS station out of Milwaukee , offered a mix of headlines and talk in both the morning and evening hours but had no listener call-in time. The afternoon hours were all national programs. The early morning hour was co-hosted and gave the most talk time (4 minutes) to two boys who went to a local prom together. (The second longest segment was the Marquette nickname debate.) The station stuck with the prom story during the evening drive time with another 3 minutes and 32 seconds on the topic.
The Kenosha station, WGTD, a public station and NPR affiliate, offered the biggest difference. Beyond the top-of-the-hour headlines (mostly from NPR) the entire show was spent with the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside discussing everything from its connection to students to its community involvement, cooperation with other universities and the tenure process. The mid-day local programming, in contrast, was about news. NPR headlines led the hour, and then the host spent the rest of it on a wide variety of subjects, some national, some local and just one sports segment at the end. Many stories were reported from correspondents and some were even fully reported with multiple sources. The longest of those (4 minutes) was about getting more women interested in hunting. The evening news hours were filled with national NPR programming.
News radio listeners in Bend, Ore., had just one choice: KBND, a CBS affiliate. During the week, 5 to 9 a.m. is devoted to more to news than talk. In the 6 a.m. hour studied, there is a local “host” but nearly all the content except traffic and weather comes from other personalities. National headlines come from the CBS radio news desk, local news from a local news anchor — some of it correspondent-reported but all of it brief. CNN radio brings business news headlines, and a syndicated health personality offers health news. Then national, syndicated programming kicks in until 5 p.m. From 9 to noon it’s Rush Limbaugh, from noon to 1 Paul Harvey, followed by Lars Larson and Bill O’Reilly. Local news, in the same format as the morning hour, airs from 5 to 6. The day then ends with more national programming, Clark Howard’s consumer news and finally Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
1. As currently licensed, satellite radio networks are restricted by the FCC from providing local content to specific targeted communities.
3. For the purposes of this overview, the Project used unpublished data pulled from BIAfn’s Media Access Pro 4.1 database. Station listings, which included primary format information, were generated for three markets—Houston-Galveston, Milwaukee-Racine, and Bend, Ore. Using the BIAfn data, station format histories were verified and then crosschecked and updated by using information listed on individual station Web sites and with Arbitron’s station information listings. Still, when compared to other radio formats, news is perhaps the most difficult to cleanly define. No precise formula and no real guidelines exist for determining whether a station is a news station, a news/talk station or a talk station.
It is also difficult to precisely determine issues like reception that may affect the radio station people might listen to as their ‘home town’ station. It is wholly possible that an individual in Houston or Milwaukee is able to receive the signal of a station from outside either city’s designated market-area. 4. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Estimates of the Population for Incorporated Places Over 100,000, Ranked by July 1, 2004. Population: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2004 , http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/tables/SUB-EST2004-01.xls
5. Coverage determined by using National Public Radio’s station coverage map.
6. The result was 11 1/2 hours of local news programming spread across 6 different stations. The specific stations were as follows: In Houston, KSEV (6-7 a.m. and 5-6 p.m.) and KTRH (6-7 a.m. and 1-2 p.m.); In Milwaukee, WTMJ (5-6 a.m. and 5-6 p.m.), WGTD (8-9 a.m. and 12-12:30 p.m.) and WHBL (6-7 a.m. and 11a.m.-12 p.m.); In Bend, KBND (6-7 a.m. and 5-6 p.m.)
7. The index measured the presence of ten different elements that a story might contain. They were the presence of: background information, future implications, the impact of the story on citizens, a human face to the story, some separation of fact and conjecture, potential action someone could take as a citizen, potential action to take as a consumer, contact information for the journalist or news outlet, the underlying principles at play, where to go for additional information.